Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

Why do we need the Scienceogram?

The Scienceogram takes a pretty unusual perspective on government spending. We’re surprised that it is unusual, because the idea behind it is very simple, but it really can bring home the relative sizes of numbers that are otherwise just incomprehensible figures ending in ‘-illion’.

Figures in the press and politics are often presented in a contextual vacuum. How does the £20m in additional tax offered by Starbucks fit into the national finances? What does the £110bn NHS budget mean, other than that healthcare is expensive? One way to compare these items is to look at them relative to one-another, but even then it’s hard to comprehend figures with so many zeroes while you’re still rubbing sleep out of your eyes. What we need is a system in which the individual numbers make sense: pounds per person per year.

pound coins image
Image by wwarby

It all started after we made the Cashogram, an analysis of UK government and personal spending tailored to the median full-time earner. The results were, in some ways, eye-openingly mundane; most of the £11,000 spent by the government on each of our behalves goes to rather predictable and basically laudable destinations like welfare, education and defence, and the biggest drains on personal purses are houses and cars.

One group of numbers struck us as particularly conspicuous by its meagreness, though: spending on science. We started to wonder how to square a £10 per person per year investment in cancer research with, say, nearly £200 per person in public funding on the Olympics, £600 per capita in dodged tax, or £300 per year for a typical mobile phone contract.

We decided to look deeper into what we spend on science, and think harder about the most relevant comparisons to it. Though it’s interesting to look at research funding compared to other items of government and personal spending, the really important comparisons are with the scale of the problems science seeks to solve.

The Scienceogram aims to raise awareness of these numbers, and make science funding a genuine political issue. Debate around the science budget is currently very small-c conservative: should we reduce the budget or just freeze it? When the issues are remote and the budgets are measured in billions, it’s easy to accept this. If policymakers and the public realised how small spending actually is, in relative and absolute terms, we might be able to have a proper debate about how much we should be spending on different areas of scientific research.

Categories: Scienceogram

5 Comments

  1. Kieron Flanagan

    I agree it is vitally important that more should know exactly what we spend on science and technology in comparison to other areas of spending. And I think in the main you’re doing a fantastic job of communicating that (aside from a few quibbles over the detail).

    But knowing how much or how little we spend cannot be enough to “have a proper debate about how much we should be spending on different areas of scientific research.”

    For that we need a genuinely evidence-based discussion of the benefits of publicly-funded research and technological development and an open and honest discussion of what we expect as a society from our investments in science and technology.

    It does science a disservice – and possibly stores up problems for the future – simply to assume that the goals and benefits of increased spending are so obvious as to speak for themselves. In fact the evidence base that we do have, flawed though it is, suggests a far more complex picture than is implied by the assumptions behind this site. And in particular it suggests that what we spend our money on and how is as, if not more, important as how much we spend.

    Campaigners for public spending in other areas of public life would be rightfully criticized if they made no reference to the evidence base in support of their claims.

    There is a powerful, evidence-based case to be made for at least sustaining “basic” research spending at current levels and increasing the amount we spend on applied research and technological development to solve major societal problems. So let’s start making it!

  2. Scienceogram

    I think we basically agree here: understanding how research spending measures up against the scale of the challenges it’s tackling is necessary but not sufficient for a proper debate about science funding. How and where the money is spent is obviously a vitally important feature too, and the evidence base for science funding will form a future page (or maybe several) of this website.

    To give the rationale behind one thing you mention, the reason we emphasise blue-skies research isn’t so much that we think that spending should be increased uniformly across currently existing portfolios, but instead that, as you say, it would be foolish to cut it. Most of the Scienceogram’s statistics are very much focussed on the applied side—and, looking at the cost of science against the benefits which have resulted from research, it’s hard to believe the scientific institution would scale so poorly that ‘more of the same’ wouldn’t be (at least) reasonably good value for money. And, when the scale of the problems dwarfs the scale of the investment so, it’s very cheap to have a go.

    I don’t think we’re doing science a disservice: unless you have a really strong reason to believe that, for example, investing more in fusion research won’t bring fusion electricity onto the grid faster, or investing more in medical research can’t bring us new treatments more quickly. The Scienceogram aims to show that it doesn’t take that much money to achieve these goals.

    The aim of the debate about science funding should be to get more science done, and reap greater benefits from it, whether by quantity of money or strategy of investment. Our first step has been to look at the ‘how much’, and hopefully the Scienceogram can raise the profile of the ‘where’ and ‘how’ conversation about science funding too. Watch this space!

  3. FAQ: Facebook asks questions | Scienceogram UK

    [...] Looking at these numbers per person rather than overall is crucial to the Scienceogram for two reasons: firstly, it brings unintelligible billions down to a scale we’re all used to, and, secondly, it allows us to compare between countries with different populations. For a full explanation, see our blog post ‘Why do we need the Scienceogram?’ [...]

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